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Common Ingredients in Spanish Recipes
If you're going to cook your favorite dishes from Spain, you first need to stock your pantry with some of the most popular ingredients in classic Spanish recipes. To make it easy for you, I've made a list of the most important items to have on hand and provided some resources to help you choose the right product for your needs.
Olive Oil & Olives
Many people associate this "liquid gold" with Italian food, but olive oil is a star in the Spanish kitchen, too! In fact, Spain produces enough every year to fill 400 Olympic-sized swimming pools, and the average citizen consumes 2.5 gallons annually. It is used for everything from frying (like in my Spanish tortilla recipe), to salad dressing, to olive oil cake!
The olive tree was probably brought to the Iberian peninsula by the Phoenecians or the Greeks, but its cultivation expanded rapidly under the Romans. Later, the Arabs would perfect the production of olive oil—so much so that the Spanish word for oil, aceite, derives from the Arabic al-zat, or "olive juice."
Olives themselves are a staple of Spanish cuisine. They're often served marinated or stuffed as one of many tapas dishes, but you'll also find them flavoring chicken dishes, with capers on cod, in fresh salads, or in the filling of stuffed piquillo peppers. You'll want to keep some manzanilla and gordal olives handy if you're going to be cooking Spanish foods regularly.
- Useful Tips for Buying Spanish Olive Oil
Still not sure where to start when shopping for a Spanish olive oil? Here are some useful tips for understanding labels and making a selection with confidence.
- 4 Spanish Olives You Need to Know
Spain produces almost 300 different kinds of olives. Learn more about 4 specific types that you may want to use in your cooking.
Spanish sherry vinegar is made with the solera system, similar to sherry wine itself. This process involves aging a minimum of 6 months in rows of barrels on top of each other, with the oldest vinegar in the bottom row and the youngest on the top. When it is bottled, you get a blend of both older and newer vinegars, yielding a beautiful complex flavor.
Sherry vinegar is classified by the varietal of grape that it contains. Just like the fortified wine, it picks up different characteristics and flavor notes depending on the kind of grapes. Palomino sherry vinegar is light, dry, and sharp. Pedro Ximénez and Moscatel are both sweeter. You can find delicious blends from all over that will definitely do the job. But if want to be truly faithful to the traditional Spanish flavor profile, be sure you are purchasing an authentic vinegar from Cádiz by checking for the Denominación de Origen seal on the label.
It's an important ingredient in sauces and soups (like my easy gazpacho recipe, for example), but you'll get a lot of mileage out of it if you keep your kitchen stocked. Braise short ribs in it, pair with a fruity Spanish olive oil for salad dressing, or make a fresh mignonette for oysters.
Also called pimentón, this spice usually comes in three different heat levels:
- pimentón dulce - "sweet" or mild
- pimentón agridulce - moderate
- pimentón picante - very spicy
Pimentón de La Vera, or smoked paprika, is painstakingly dried over a wood fire (primarily oak), and has a distinctive aroma and flavor as a result. It's great for adding a smoky note to dishes on the stovetop when you can't fire up the barbecue.
You'll find paprika in a lot of Spanish dishes, often lending a nice pop of red color in addition to the punch of heat. It features prominently in papas bravas recipes, some paellas, in soups and stews, and to flavor proteins.
Sometimes called "red gold" because of its high price tag, saffron actually turns dishes yellow. It is, in fact, the world's most expensive spice because of the labor-intensive harvesting, which must be done by hand. These crimson threads are only a small part of the crocus sativus plant (there are only three per flower!), so it also takes a lot of acreage and water.
But when you're cooking Spanish food, it's one luxury you can't afford to ignore. Saffron is a key ingredient in a traditional paella, and you'll often find flavoring other rice dishes, too. It makes a wonderful aromatic broth, or you can use it to season shrimp, fish, chicken, or lamb. Saffron is vital for Moroccan-inspired dishes like tagine, but it also features in some Spanish desserts!
Primarily grown near the town of Lodosa in Northern Spain, piquillos are a sweet variety of chili pepper. With almost no heat of their own, they're often used in conjuction with spicy pimentón or ñora peppers. There are two piquillo harvests, between September and December, where the peppers are hand-picked and then roasted low and slow over embers, giving them a delicious smoky taste.
You'll often find piquillo pepper on tapas menus, stuffed with goat cheese or simply drizzled with olive oil. They're also pureed into sauces or chopped and used as a hint of color and sweetness on a dish. I highly recommend having them on hand; you usually buy them in jars or cans, packed in brine.
If you cannot find them where you live, substitute any jarred sweet red pepper, or roast your own!
Another canned good to keep in the cupboard is a tin of anchovies. You'll see fresh anchovies on tapas menus in boquerones en vinaigre, marinated in vinegar, olive oil, garlic, and parsley. They are also fried for boquerones fritos. But the preserved kind are also extremely useful. They bring a special umami to salads or sandwiches, and minced fine they are an excellent garnish for hard boiled eggs or meat dishes.
If you don't think you'll be using enough of them to justify keeping a tin around, consider opting for a tube of anchovy paste. This way you can add the same flavor traditional notes to your food without all the muss and fuss, so to speak. I use it in my salad dressing, but also in sauces and soup bases.
A Sample Recipe with Anchovies
- Spanish Anchovy, Fennel, and Preserved Lemon Salad
An example of a great, easy recipe using canned anchovy fillets
Spanish Herbs & Spices
What herbs do you need to have on your spice rack? You probably already have a lot of them in your kitchen! You'll recognize many from Italian and Greek cooking, as well as ingredients you associate with the Middle East. Besides paprika and saffron, which we discussed at more length above, consider buying:
Grow Your Own!
- Tips for a Small-Space Kitchen Herb Garden
If you have room on your kitchen counter, you have room for a small herb garden. Grow your own fresh rosemary, thyme, basil and more!
Produce & Proteins
A country's cuisine isn't just about seasoning!
When it comes to fresh produce, Spanish dishes use a lot of garlic, onions, tomatoes and peppers. Artichokes and asparagus are both popular when they're in season. Even if you're not familiar with the recipes themselves, familiar vegetables like broccoli, cauliflower, peas, green beans, and carrots will help you feel right at home. There are also a lot of potato dishes and fresh salads with greens like lettuce or spinach.
As far as proteins, you will see a lot of chicken, lamb, pork, and beef, as well as fish and seafood. Recipes may also call for rabbit or duck, which tend to be less popular with cooks in the United States, depending on where you live. Beans (both white and garbanzo) and eggs are great options for vegetarians. No matter what your dietary needs, you'll have no trouble finding great recipes that suit your preferences.
Common Spanish Ingredients
aceite de oliva
vinagre de Jerez
pimientos del piquillo